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Friday, November 11, 2011

Child protection decision making - fill in the forms or think

One of the negative results of the various types of inquiries (or media coverage) that result from the death of a child known to CPS, is that the organizations often try to create ways to minimize the risk of further errors. Structured decision making (SDM) tools are one way that this gets addressed. This creates a series of formats that a worker fills in and is then guided on their decision. Critics suggest that such tools create good form completers but not good thinkers.

Gillingham (2011) has published a review of SDM in one area of Australia. Published in Child and Family Social Work he has provided some good insight into when these sorts of tools are useful and when not. They seem to have the most value to new practitioners who lack the experience to know what to do in cases they manage. The research notes that for these workers, they are quite valuable.

However, as workers gain experience, such tools may serve to limit the intuitive application of experience and knowledge tending to force the worker into analytical methods instead.  To make good decisions, workers need to move beyond the decision making matrix that forms create. Indeed, as Gillingham notes, "...SDM tools might impair the professional development of new practitioners...."(2011, p.417).  These tools cannot replace expertise (p.419) but one can easily see that the inexperienced worker would find these tools very attractive - they replace knowledge in essence.

SDM is also likely attractive to management as it helps to protect the agency by having structured (and most probably risk aversive) decision making tools that ensure procedure is followed.

Good social work requires analytical thinking for sure. But it also requires creative and intuitive thinking based on experience. In far too many child protection agencies, however, there is a plethora of new workers along with high caseloads leading to high turnover. Thus, SDM is very appealing as there is a shortage of workers with the kinds of experience that leads to better decision making.

One question that Gillingham does not answer is whether children and families are better off.

Public inquiries, media analysis and vitriolic criticism when something goes wrong, leads to more SDM approaches. Perhaps we should be asking if children are safer as a result.


Gillingham, P. (2011). Decision-making tools and the development of expertise in child protection practitioners: Are we 'just breeding workers who are good at ticking boxes'?. Child and Family Social Work, 16 (4), 412-421.  doi:  10.1111/j.1365-2206.2011.00756.x

1 comment:

  1. people always complain and we end up all over the media when a child dies in our care. the stat i wish we had but never will is how many children have we saved?